Here’s how Louisville is justifying its plan to burn down a home used to make explosives
Louisville officials are relying on a local law that gives them authority to take down a structure at short notice if there is a risk to those who live in or near it. That’s their justification for conducting a “planned, monitored and controlled burn” of a Highview home where a man was allegedly crafting homemade explosives.
The city is working with state and federal partners, including the Kentucky National Guard and the FBI, to plan the burn. Officials will prepare the site then ignite it remotely. Kevin Trager, a spokesperson for Mayor Craig Greenberg, said the administration believes this may be the first emergency demolition of a stable home in the city's 245-year history.
“There have been situations in the past where demolition of a house was required,” Trager said in an email Wednesday. “In most cases we give advance notice before the demolition (for example, if a tornado destroyed part of a house and we had to demolish it later on).”
At a press conference Tuesday, police said they had removed explosive material and other chemicals from Marc Hibel’s home, located at 6213 Applegate Lane, and an adjacent property where he was squatting, 6211 Applegate Lane. Police would not say what kind of hazardous materials remain in the home and in what quantity.
Greenberg described Hibel’s house as “an extreme hoarding situation” with little room for workers in personal protective gear or a remote-controlled robot to maneuver. For that reason, Greenberg said experts advised Louisville Metro that burning the house would be the safest option.
Jimmie Oxley, a chemist and explosives expert at the University of Rhode Island, told LPM News that burning down cluttered homes where someone made explosives has become a more common practice in recent years, and it can be done safely.
But what gives the city the right to burn down someone’s home?
An emergency declaration and emergency demolition
Despite rumors surrounding the city’s plan to burn the Applegate house, Louisville Metro does not have the authority to destroy the home based on the serious allegations against Hibel. The basis of its argument for this plan is public safety.
Louisville Code Enforcement issued an emergency demolition order for the home where Hibel was squatting, 6213 Applegate Lane, on Tuesday — five days after police arrested the 53-year-old chemist on a felony wanton endangerment charge. Hibel was also charged with first degree and second degree burglary on Thursday.
Local and federal law enforcement have been at the site since late last week, and officials conducted two controlled detonations behind the house, WLKY reported. Police are stationed there around the clock.
Robert Kirchdorfer, head of Codes and Regulations, wrote in an affidavit attached to the demolition order obtained by LPM News that police informed him there were explosives and “massive amounts of chemicals” in that house “in a condition that made the situation extremely dangerous.”
“The chemicals found on the premises include secondary and primary explosives,” Kirchdorfer wrote. “I have been made aware of over twenty different chemicals that have been identified on the premises. There are gallons and tens of gallons of these chemicals and other chemicals at the premises.”
Kirchdorfer said law enforcement did not allow him to observe the explosives or chemicals himself, saying it was unsafe.
“It is not safe for any public and must be under the control of Metro for protection until such time that the properties, both primary residence and garage, are demolished…” Kirchdorfer said. “The abatement of the facility may itself be a dangerous situation.”
In recommending the emergency demolition, Kirchdorfer relied on a section of a local law allows city officials to demolish a building without notice or a hearing, “when there is actual or potential danger to the building occupants or those in proximity of any structure because of explosives, explosive fumes” among other reasons.
The ordinance allows the city to charge the owner of the property for 15% of the demolition’s cost, “including all costs for labor, materials, travel and filing, and administrative costs.”
Trager, Greenberg’s spokesperson, did not immediately respond to a question about whether the city would seek to recoup the cost of demolition.
The demolition will take place amid a local state emergency, which Greenberg declared this Monday.
The basis for that declaration was that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies had found “known and unknown chemicals” and homemade explosives inside the Highview home, “along with hoarding conditions,” that posed “safety and health risks to the responders and the local community.”
The state of emergency, which lasts for 30 days, put the city’s emergency operations plan into action. Greenberg’s declaration directed Louisville Metro Emergency Services to coordinate the efforts of various city agencies that will help in the demolition.
And under state law, the declaration gave Greenberg the authority to waive “procedures and formalities otherwise required by the law” like delays in performing construction activities, approval of new spending or contracts and requirements around employing temporary workers and renting equipment.
“By declaring a state of emergency, Louisville Metro Government and our partners are able to move as quickly as possible to do what we need to do to ensure that no one is hurt and this situation is resolved,” Greenberg said at the press conference Tuesday.
Greenberg added that the emergency declaration may help offset some of the costs of the controlled burn, although he didn’t elaborate on how.
City officials say the burn will require “correct atmospheric and weather conditions” to safely incinerate all of the chemicals remaining in 6213 Applegate Lane. They are creating a plan with the help of explosives and hazardous materials experts, including the Kentucky National Guard and the FBI.
At a press conference Thursday, Greenberg said approximately 900 homes may need to be temporarily evacuated before and during the operation, affecting around 2,000 residents. Officials hope people will be able to return home within 24 hours, but say it could take longer depending on the results of air quality monitoring.
Louisville Metro will host a meeting on Monday, August 7 at 6:30 p.m. for people who live, work or care for someone near the property. The meeting will be at Highview Baptist Church and attendees will be able to share their concerns and ask questions of the experts who are planning the burn.